The Tech Writer vs. the English Major

As a writer, I know that there are times to break grammatical rules in order to communicate better.

Sometimes, for example, that means choosing “who” over “whom,” so as not to remind my readers of their high school principal.

But for me, when the rules seem to be at odds with my ear, I usually rewrite.

This is because of two competing parts of my brain.

Brain part #1: The tech writer. The tech writer in me just wants to get the information in the reader’s head. This part of my brain doesn’t care about grammar, syntax, or appropriate wording, except as a means to the end of communicating quickly and with as few distractions as possible.

Brain part #2: The English major. This part of me wants to use words “correctly.” It wants to have the answers to all the grammatical questions. When my colleagues read my work, I want them to see that I really know my stuff.

Now, except for very rare circumstances, I’m not being paid to be an English major. I’m being paid to be a tech writer. So I know which part of my brain should get priority.

But if there’s way to make both parts happy then I’ll consider it. And this is why I often end up rewriting.

I’ll come up with a phrasing that sounds good and is clear, but is grammatically questionable. Or I’ll come up with one that is beyond reproach grammatically, syntactically, and semantically, but sounds like a train wreck.

So I rewrite.

Two notes here:

NOTE # 1: If the phrase sounds bad, then it doesn’t matter if it’s correct. If it sounds bad, then you have to rewrite it, period. Being correct doesn’t beat sounding right.

Note #2: It is NOT necessarily the case that if it sounds good and is clear, then I don’t have to rewrite it. Grammar matters to a lot of people, so just being clear doesn’t save me. Many readers will notice a grammatical “error,” and lose their immersion in the writing. Which means that I’m not doing my job. (Not to mention that ungrammatical sentences can cause problems for translators.)

But where are the examples?

Let’s go with possession.

If Bob and Carla share their 1954 Ken doll, then it’s “Bob and Carla’s doll.” It’s the doll that belongs to the unit of “Bob and Carla.”

But if they each have their own doll (with matching tennis clothes and two pairs of shoes), then the dolls are “Bob’s and Carla’s dolls.”

Fine. But to my ear, this starts to sound funny when said in the first person. For example, my wife and I own a house together.

“The house is my wife and mine”? “The house is my wife and me’s”? ”

Can either of these be right? Can they be grammatical? Well, the point is moot, because it sounds weird, so I’d never use it. I may be CURIOUS about whether it’s considered grammatically correct by good writers, but that phrase will never appear in my writing, except as an example.

This surprises non-writers that I work with. They come to me with a question about correctness, and I tell them that it doesn’t matter. I don’t know whether it’s “correct” or not, but it sounds terrible, so toss it.

Am I getting this right? Do you ever find correct grammar to get in the way of communication?



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